Florida Court Overturns Spiritual-Healing Case

Christian Science couple is exonerated on due-process grounds

THE Florida Supreme Court Friday unanimously overturned the convictions of two Christian Science parents who had been found guilty of felony child abuse and third-degree murder in the 1986 death of their 10-year-old child.

William and Christine Hermanson were convicted in a 1989 jury trial after their daughter, Amy, died in 1986. In accord with their Christian Science faith, the couple had turned to spiritual healing for the child, rather than conventional medicine. They received four-year suspended sentences and were placed on 15 years' probation. The convictions were upheld in 1990 by the Florida Second District Court of Appeals. The law in question

The case revolved around Florida's child-abuse law, which defines as "harm" to a child's health or welfare instances when a parent or guardian "fails to supply the child with adequate food, clothing, shelter, or health care ... however, a parent or other person responsible for the child's welfare legitimately practicing his religious beliefs, who by reason thereof does not provide specified medical treatment for a child, may not be considered abusive or neglectful for that reason alone...."

In the original trial, the prosecution claimed that the Hermansons were guilty of negligence because they were not legitimately practicing their religious beliefs. It asserted that the Church of Christ, Scientist, "recognizes" medical care and that therefore the Hermansons should have called in a physician. The Hermansons responded that they were legitimately practicing their religion and therefore should not be convicted.

In their latest appeal, the couple claimed, among other things, that they were denied due process - the constitutional right of a defendant to know beforehand that the state considers a course of action to be criminal. They also noted that it took the appellate court nine pages to explain its conclusion that the spiritual-treatment provision was part of the civil child-abuse law only, not the criminal child-abuse law; and that the trial court came to a different conclusion.

Both the defense and prosecution pointed to rulings in other states to support their cases: prosecutors to a California Supreme Court ruling in a similar case in which that court held no violation of due process had occurred; and the defense to a recent Minnesota Supreme Court ruling in which the court refused on due-process grounds to allow a prosecution of Christian Science parents.

The Florida high court agreed with the Minnesota ruling. The justices held that the relevant Florida laws "are ambiguous and result in a denial of due process because the statutes in question fail to give parents notice of the point at which their reliance on spiritual treatment loses statutory approval and becomes culpably negligent."

"We conclude that the legislature has failed to clearly indicate the point at which a parent's reliance on his or her religious beliefs in the treatment of his or her children becomes criminal conduct," the court said. Seven cases in 1980s

The case was one of seven brought during the 1980s against Christian Scientists whose children died under Christian Science treatment through prayer. Those cases, in California, Florida, Arizona, and Massachusetts, challenged spiritual-healing provisions similar to Florida's that exist in the child-welfare laws of most states.

While not exclusively applying to Christian Scientists, the laws have usually been sought by members of the Christian Science Church, who for more than 100 years have practiced a form of healing through prayer that they say has given results at least as good as those of medicine.

The cases resulted in a mixture of acquittals, convictions, and appeals.

The best-known involved David and Ginger Twitchell, former Massachusetts residents who were convicted of manslaughter here in Boston on July 4, 1990, in the death of their 2-1/2-year-old son, Robyn. In that case, the trial judge refused to inform the jury of the existence of a spiritual-healing provision in Massachusetts child-abuse law.

The Twitchells have filed a notice of appeal to the state Supreme Judicial Court, but because of delays in obtaining transcripts of the three-month trial, oral arguments are not expected for many months yet.

Victor Westberg, spokesman for The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, hailed the Florida decision, but said it did not go far enough in recognizing a parent's right to choose spiritual healing.

"Although the Florida Supreme Court limited the decision to due process, we see it as a strong first step in protecting parental rights," he said. "Individuals should have a clear right of choice and government should have to prove a compelling state interest to limit that choice."

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